ESTA is an electronic registration system requiring travelers who are part of the Visa Waiver Program (VWP) – 27 countries including Belgium – to register before boarding a plane or cruise ship destined for the United States.
The ESTA program begins on a voluntary basis on August 1, 2008 and required registration enters into force as of January 12, 2009. Registration is free and may be done by third parties (travel agencies, family, friends).
Registration should preferably be done 72 hours prior to the beginning of a trip but it is in principle possible to register at any moment before departure. A last minute departure for the United States will always be possible.
Registration is valid for 2 years and for multiple entries. It is possible to bring your data up-to-date at any time. An answer will be given immediately in the majority of cases. The person who does not receive authorization will need to go to an embassy or a consulate to apply for a visa. The ESTA authorization does not mean moreover that access to the United States is guaranteed.
The ESTA program does not apply to Belgians who are holders of a visa for the United States. Registration should be done on the following site: esta.cbp.dhs.gov (as of August 1, 2008).
Belgian visitors in general enter the United States without a visa sticker in their passport on the Visa Waiver Program (VWP). Implemented in 1988, this program allows visitors of several countries, including Belgium, to stay in the US for tourism or business purposes, for up to ninety days, without a visa. After an evaluation of almost two years, the U.S. Attorney General John Ashcroft, decided on March 1, 2003, to continue the Visa Waiver Program for Belgian visitors. This decision was made for several countries presently participating in the Visa Waiver Program.
Belgian visitors can therefore continue to visit the U.S. without a visa on the condition that they hold a new Belgian passport, having a machine-readable zone. Visitors should also be able to show proof of sufficient funds to cover their travel expenses and have a return airline ticket.
What is the difference between the old and new type of Belgian passport ?
The new passport has a machine-readable zone and is in use since one year. The machine-readable zone consists out of a series of letters, numbers and symbols at the bottom of the identity page under the photo of the holder. New passports also contain other security measures such as a microperforated photograph. This is a new technique only used in Belgium which ensures that the Belgian passport is now one of the most tamper-resistant passports in the world.
What is the effect of this new requirement on Belgians traveling to the United States ?
After May 15, 2003, Belgian visitors seeking to enter the United States must present a machine-readable passport in order to be admitted under the Visa Waiver Program as a temporary visitor for business or for pleasure.
Holders of the old type passport have two options:
1. Request a new passport with a machine-readable zone and enjoy entry under the Visa Waiver Program.
2. Request a non-immigrant visa at the U.S. Embassy in Brussels in your old passport. Your visa sticker will then contain machine-readable identifyers.
Entry under the Visa Waiver Program
At check-in in Brussels-Zaventem or during the flight to the USA, the passenger will receive a green "I-94W" form (departure record) which the US immigration official will validate upon entry in the United States. On this card will be written the date of entry and the duration of stay allowed (never more than 90 days!).
The VWP imposes certain restrictions, please contact the US Embassy in Brussels and request a detailed list of the conditions and restrictions of the Visa Waiver Program. Some of the restrictions are:
- young people may not accept employment including au-pair jobs and may not take language courses; - the visitor's luggage should not contain any documents or material that could indicate that they intend to seek employment during their visit; - the entry on the VWP does not allow the prospective visitor to appeal the decision of a US immigration official if this official decides to deny entry to the foreign visitor; - the visitor cannot change his/her status while in de US on the VWPP, for example by registering for courses. A change of status can only be obtained at a US Embassy or Consulate abroad; - the VWP allows visits of up to ninety days, no extensions are possible while in the USA, except for a serious medical condition.
This new policy for Belgian travelers will go into effect after May 15, 2003, and is the result of stricter rules for entry into the United States with stricter control on visitors to the United States. All passports are carefully checked and machine-read by the American immigration authorities at the point of departure to the United States.
Visitors who enter the US for other reasons than tourism or business for maximum ninety days, should contact the US Embassy in Brussels and obtain the proper entry visa sticker. These visitors will not be allowed in the US without the proper visa.
Visitors traveling with a passport that is not machine-readable also need to contact the US Embassy in Brussels and obtain a nonimmigrant visa.
Above visitors will receive a visa sticker in their Belgian passport. At check-in in the airport or during the flight, they will receive a white "I-94" card which the US immigration official will validate upon entry. The card will indicate the duration of stay allowed under that particular visa. Also in this case, the visitor should not overstay the duration of stay indicated. However, it may be possible to obtain an extension of stay while in the USA. Please contact the local Immigration and Naturalisation Office for details.
If you stay longer in the United States than allowed, you should know that this may have serious consequences. Those visitors who overstay, may be barred from visiting the US for a period of three to ten years, depending on how long the illegal stay is.
Visitors who are refused entry at the border, may be barred from visiting the US for a period of five to twenty years.
Please note that US Immigration and Naturalization Officials have to respect the rules and regulations of the US Immigration Laws and that it is their job to prevent illegal immigration. A visitor who is denied entry in the US, will be detained at the border or in the airport of entry and will be deported to his/her home country.
Questioning by officials of US Immigration or Customs Authorities or by a Security Official is not always a pleasant experience, especially when the visitor speaks no or broken English. Please answer questions truthfully and comply with requests to look through luggage.
Do NOT under any circumstance while entering or leaving the United States joke about carrying weapons or having bombs or dynamite in your luggage. You will most likely be detained, handcuffed and taken to prison to await a bond-hearing before a judge. The US government does not take bomb threats lightly and does not consider any statement which could threaten the safety or security of the USA and its citizens - even one made in fun - as a joke.
Laptops may be detained and examined at the U.S. border. Federal agents have the right to examine and detain laptops and other electronic devices (hard disks, iPods, memory sticks, cell phones, audio and video cassettes) for an unspecified period when a traveler enters the U.S. This practice is part of ordinary border control and does not indicate, from the perspective of the authorities, that you are under any particular suspicion.
When problems do arise because of a lack of understanding, please ask to be allowed to make a phone call. You may always call "collect" and should try to contact the nearest Belgian Consulate or the Belgian Embassy or call a friend or family member with the request to call the Embassy or Belgian Consulate.
Please make a copy of the internet homepage with the addresses and phone numbers of the Belgian Embassy and the Belgian Consulates in the USA and keep this information with you in case the need arises.
It is also important to know that almost all Belgian visitors enter the United States and have a pleasant entry and a wonderful stay. However, in some instances because of a lack of understanding or communication, problems may occur. We hope the above information will help make you an informed visitor and we wish you a pleasant trip.
Copyright SPF Foreign Affairs Belgium & the Consulate of Belgium in Los Angeles, all rights reserved.